Congress held a meeting today on what NASA's overall purpose should look like under the next few presidents. But agreement on just what that purpose might be -- as witnesses discussed everything from the planned Mars trip to a proposal for a space station hotel -- seemed far away. "If we treated the Air Force like we do NASA, we'd have no flying aircraft. We cannot decide every few years what we want the purpose of the space program to be," said former NASA administrator Mike Griffin to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology this morning.
The Mars mission was a topic of heavy discussion. At one point, Congressman Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) waved a MARS 2033 bumpersticker over his head (whether he brought it with him to the meeting for that specific purpose, or simply has it on him at all times was unclear) -- only to have his colleague Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) snap that perhaps Republicans should print their own Mars 2032 bumper stickers.
But Mars was far from the only destination that came up; both the Moon and the Space Station featured.
"If God wanted us to go to Mars, he'd have given us a Moon to practice on first," said Griffin. He suggested a plan whereby astronauts would first spend several months on the space station, before heading to the Moon for a six-month stay. Only after that would a Mars mission make sense, he said.
Astronaut Eileen Collins threw out the idea of a space station hotel: "There are plenty of tourists and people that have money that would love to go up in space and live on the station." With the money saved there, she argued, we could push out further into deeper space. "If we could find a private company that would take over the station and sell it like a hotel, we may be able wean ourselves off of the space station and get into deep space."
It remains to be seen which of these ideas, or a combination thereof, will actually be carried out -- although the picture of just what's to come will probably look a lot clearer after the US election.
Image: Artist's incredible concept of space colonisation (1970) / NASA